Community Centred

Published 27, Nov, 2012

MT O’Shaughnessy: “Often in discussions around HIV I find myself wondering if we’ve fully accounted for . . not just the poz community or the poz male community or even the poz gay male community. But the guy who lives down the street, that community.”

She has the kind of face that requires seconds of examination, minutes to completely be sure you understand what you’re looking at.  She’s ninety-something, I discovered, and has the bent, wrinkled and gnarled figure that almost ends up being genderless.  But for the touches here and there, the bits of makeup or the thick heeled shoes. 

She rests in the restaurant I frequent, against the wall. There is something about her that is quiet, polite, a kind of air that makes you think of prim hands folded in the lap. A kind of dignity. I’m not sure how many would see it, but I do.  

She lives on her own, still. I learn this, her age and some of her life from the people behind the counter and only after she leaves. I’ve seen her a few times, seen staff talking to her. Giving her time to talk to them, anyone. The whirling buzz of the West End, all motion and speed and changing direction, all of it spins around this slowed down woman. And all I can see are the stories she must have to tell.

The staff have given her home phone numbers, admonished her to continue to come in so they can keep an eye on her. We stand and discuss the realities of her type of situation. One is surprised to find that there is such a stark, predictable path for some people after a certain age. Another and I aren’t. I’ve seen similar paths for HIV positive guys: little to no money, no support and the eventual move into a facility that pretty much is the last we see of them. It’s not always like this, nor is this a conversation about the evils of The System. It’s just…the talk of people trying not to imagine themselves a few years down the line. 

These same staff and I have passed time discussing the owners of a store down the street, when the husband was in hospital and we all worried.  Wondering what we could do. 

That store, a small convenience store between a gay bar and the street, has been around for ever. I often refer to the owners, who are there every single day, as parents… they ask about me and mine, always wanting to stop and check in on me. As recently as last week the woman had brought in a miracle product, according to her and this in spite of her almost acerbic levels of cynicism, for me. Free, just a small token to see if it’d help whatever was going on with my foot.

When her husband was in hospital we all checked in on her.  Knowing that despite the accented “he’s fine, he’s fine…I’m the one who has to work.”, laughter and knowing winks, she was worried.  Strained. Thankful of people caring. 

Between these two businesses are many others. The coffee shop that makes up my drink when I’m across the street, waiting for the light to change, knowing I’m coming in.I tend to be a bit regular that way. We all ask after each other, know something of the other.  We keep an eye out. 

People talk about communities. About the label and the representation, the rights. I’ve been thinking about that a lot recently as I realized how very much a part of a local community I’ve become.  How thankful I am for it, how amazing it is. How such a rock steady sense of belonging exists, all in an offhanded and unsung manner. 

No one worries about whether or not they all get along. They don’t even care if everyone get’s equal time to air their grievances. They just.. do their thing and expect the days to take care of themselves. 

There is no question about whether or not they’re needed. Or whether or not there is a place in today’s world for them. Of course there is. Community? Is about choosing to care for each other, about each other. Because we can. Not because we have to.

Often in discussions around HIV I find myself wondering if we’ve fully accounted for that specific level of community. The one inside of which we live. Not just the poz community or the poz male community or even the poz gay male community, in my case. But.. the guy who lives down the street, that community. 

Because when John died, and Michael before him, and hundreds of others before him… these people not part of the ever shrinking circle of definitions, they didn’t care whether or not they were inside that circle. They held doors, took minutes to let people get their breathe, knew which foods to offer on bad days.  They did it without having to be told to.  

It’s not perfect or idyllic, by any means. I’m not talking a culture or country, after all. Just a local group of people. But still. I wonder if we’ve thanked them recently? I know I intend to, even if they don’t quite get what it means to be treated as important for whatever is going on in my life, but not different. And how precious that can be.